Saturday, March 15, 2008

Was the last thing I posted on the Taj?

If so, you're all way behind. And whose fault is that, really?

After Agra, which by consensus is one of the worst places in India to be a tourist (after Varanasi, central Rajasthan, Delhi, and all the other cities along the Ganges), we headed into Orccha, which as far as we can tell is one of the best. We're now three cities deeper into Madhya Pradesh, and noticing how the quality of everything improves the further we get from the main tourist trail, especially the "Golden Triangle" (Agra-Delhi-Jaipur) and its two tourist tentacles, tourist Rajasthan and the Varanasi route. People are nicer to us here, the scams and touts have all but vanished, and we're even being offered reasonable rates on rickshaws without having to negotiate. Additionally - and I found this very interesting - the extremes of poverty seem to be less here. Of course, the vast majority of people we see from day to day are still doing more or less subsitence-level work - which, in Canada at least, constitutes living below the poverty line - but next to no one is begging, and even the rural parts we've driven through seem to be, to varying derees, okay. Nothing like Uttar Pradesh, which has clearly, for one reason or another, been absolutely ravished by economics. Bizarrely, we even get stared at less (creepy bus passengers excepted).

But I'm jumping ahead.

Orccha. Strictly speaking, Orccha is a tiny town, basically just two intersecting streets. What you're there to see flanks the towns on all sides and spreads for miles around it: an elaborate and humongous series of medieval ruins. On one side of the town is a set of huge former palaces, and the other is temples. From a high vantage point on either, you can look out and see more buildings, most (like the palaces and temples) crumbling, scattered across the landscape as far as you can see. In the post-monsoon season (meaning Sept-Oct), the area is matted with jungle, and only the tops of the buildings are visible. Before the monsoon, the area (like most of central India) is arid and most leafy trees drop their leaves to conserve water, so the landscape we saw was more like badlands and rough brush, punctuated by the occasional still-leafy or still-flowering tree, a hysterical green against the dust. It was amazing. We spent a day or two scrambling through the palaces and temples, exploring the ruins of the old town (you can still see at least the foundation of the old buildings, where the roads were, and two pleasure gardens have even been maintained).

It's also where I ran into serious technical difficulties. My camera is messed up; it just keeps saying "Lens error" and refusing to turn on, so I have to find an authorized Casio dealer in Delhi and see if I can get it fixed. You know how I feel about Delhi. Also, I realized I forgot the cable I need to recharge my iPod, which is almost out of battery after saving the lives of several Indian bureaucrats in the Visa office when I was there last week. I have another two days of line-standing ahead of me starting Monday, so I'll be needing it again. More work in Delhi. Joy.

Anyway. After Orccha we took a brutal bus to Khajuraho, which is by far the most inaccessible top-10 tourist attraction in India. The temples, as I think I mentioned, are famous for the quality of their sculpture, some of which happens to be erotic in nature. I think it's from the 17th century again. That was apparently a good century in India if you're the type who likes architecture and art, and if you happen not to be stuck in the massive-stone-brick-hauling profession. The temples were very memorable. I think the photos will speak for themselves.

Did I mention that it's gotten hot? In the shade it's somewhat reasonable, but the sun here is so powerful. In Khajuraho we gave up on afternoons and shifted to a schedule that gets us out of our hotel by 8 or 9 am and back into it with a cold drink in our hands by 1pm at the latest. Life resumes at 4pm. As you'll note, it's only March. I'm here until mid-June. Let that simmer for a bit; this is going to get insane.

So, exhausted by the heat, we did what most middle-class Indians do to get out of the proverbial kitchen; we boarded a nauseatingly cramped bus for a hill station, where, oh, let's see: 1 degree C cooler for every 100m in altitude, and Pachmari is over 1000m above sea level, so that gives us a break of about... 8-9C. Which makes all the difference. The trade-off, we're learning, is that higher altitude also means more powerful sun. I've gotten a little pink despite being pretty careful with the 45 SPF sunscreen. I just can't do any better than that. Which is too bad, because until now I haven't burnt, and attained a colour E. charitably describes as "positive golden... for you."

Pachmari, however, is lovely. It's almost smack dab in the center of India, in southern Madhya Pradesh, and is a huge pain in the ass to get to. From Pachmari, we had to take a 3-hr bus, then a 9-hr overnight train, then a 6-hr bus, then a 1-hr shared jeep ride. Both of those buses sucked. Buses here suck. We got stuck with a real creep on one of them, but nevermind that. We arrived in Pachmari, where we've been settled for about 5 days. We sorely needed a break from the road.

Pachmari is small, on a plateau in a hill range, and friendly. We have had food that seriously makes me wonder why we bother with food at all in North America. You can't buy postcards anywhere, which is too bad, because the area is beautiful. Maybe the nicest change, though, has been the shift in what we're doing; there have been a lot of buildings and cultural-type-stuff lately, and Pachmari has been all about the outdoors.

Our first hike, the day before yesterday, began with the worst rental bikes you've ever seen (no gears, loose breaks, solid metal frame, off-blanace), and later took us through parkland, past a 300-m waterfall (plunding down into a worn-away fissure in the rock), down to a tiny, secluded pool fed by a smaller waterfall (which we semi-swam in), and along a really beautiful natural escarpment. At S.'s insistence, we also did some... less-traditional woods-walking. All of this is why we were already a little tired when it came to... yesteray.

Yesterday was phenomenal, but might be the most exhausting thing I've ever done in my life. We did a 24-km, full-day hike out of town and across the hills, and up to an ancient Shiva temple at the top of Chaurgarh, the next-to-highest peak in the range (Pachmari's hill is much lower). Again, I'll have to show you in photos where we actually went, but I think it gives a sense of the walk to mention that almost none of it (I would guess around 5%) was across flat land, and probably at least a third of it wasn't even on a path. Although, again, a lot of trees had dropped their leaves for the sake of moisture (which left a thick and omnipresent layer of yellow leaves across the forest floot), the area we walked through yesterday was truly Kipling country, complete with panther dens and little ferny creeks through the valleys. In all, we figure we probably ascended about 1000m over the course of the day, given all the times we dipped down steep slopes and had to re-ascend. In the valleys, we stopped and put our feet in the streams, splashed the water over our heads and faces. Little fish, frogs, water-beetles. We picked up walking-sticks at our guide's suggestion; I finally understand what those are for. Some of the steepest parts, both up and down, were directly through the brush, with our guide trying to swat apart and stamp down the net of branches we were cutting through. Usually, though, they all still swung past one person and swiped the next across the arms, shins, face. It was pretty intense, and long - we left before 9am, and hailed a jeep on the other side at about 4.30.

The temple at the top of Chaurgarh was small, but really remarkable. Surrounding the grounds is a barrier of tridents carried up by pilgrims (Shiva is usually pictured with a trident, and often with snakes, which were also everywhere around the temple). They were, without exception, a heavy iron that I cannot imagine lugging up that route. (We realized on the way down that there's a new, more common, pilgrimage route, that skips all the bush stuff - you take a jeep to its entrance and then just climb a bunch of stairs up maybe 150 feet, no more. Cheaters.) The Shivratri Mela, which celebrates the wedding of Shiva and Parvati (as far as I've been told), wa just a few weeks ago, and so before the temples was a huge pile of erect tridents of all sizes, materials, and decorations, which (again) were carried up by devotees of Shiva. The view of the area is really sublime, but I was more interested in the tridents. One especially big one had a scrap-metal cobra wrapped around it; so resourceful. Some were painted, a few carved. None of the painting seemed to have been done professionally. One in particular I thought was really touching: it had a clearly amateur (and pretty rough) painting of Shiva kissing Parvati on the cheek. Someone put a lot of time and effort into painting that, as well as they could, by hand, before lugging it all the way up that mountain. Something about the humility of that, as a devotional gesture, set against the absolutely awe-inspiring power of the surrounding mountains, I thought was really beautiful. Again, as I said of the Taj, really human.

Tomorrow we leave Pachmari, making our way back to Delhi so I can finish this Visa crap off once and for all. We're headed there altogether, arriving Monday morning, and then splitting up for a few days. E. and S. are going to Jodhpur - S. hasn't seen it, and we think he should - and I'm staying two nights in Delhi to get my Visa business finished, then we're all reconvening in Udaipur (also in Rajasthan) at a pre-selected and pre-booked hotel. I'm not concerned about it. I actually feel quite comfortable with Delhi - I know the geography, I know how things work and how much they should cost - and I've booked a higher-class train for myself to Udaipur. E. and S. will be together, so they will be fine too. Hopefully E. will get back on here to let you know how that goes. I've been having a really great time with both of them - E. and I are becoming truly Patty-and-Selma-esque - but the idea of a few days alone is sitting well with me. In addition to my bureaucracy, camera, and iPod cable tasks, I'm going to find a nice bookstore to browse (I'm out of reading material, having also blasted through Lisa Moore's Open for the second time and Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories, which I picked up second-hand in Khajuraho), pick myself up something nice and maybe sell one or two of the ones I've been carrying with me, and then find a nice magazine stand with some American publications - I'm hurting for a Harper's or New Yorker or something.

Also, I might become a journalist instead of (or in addition to) a lawyer. Surprise!

Last call: send me your address if you want some mail.

1 comment:

E's Dad said...

What you are seeing in Orrcha are the consequences of the vast migration of people from the countryside to the cities,in search of economic opportunities, a process that began in 'developed' countries more than two hundred years ago. The difference in developed countries is that it largely took place before the advent of advances in public health and medicine and the resulting death toll kept the populations of the cities from exploding. The probable reason you have escaped 'extreme poverty, scams and touts' is that they have been exported to the cities!